Recently, the government narrative of slashing funding to PBS has been quieter, but the consequences have still been felt. “We were zeroed out for the last two years from the administration budget,” PBS president Paula Kerger told the Television Critics Association during the press tour on Saturday.
However, she added that no matter which party is in office, “I never assume that the money is just going to come… We need to make sure that each and every day that the local officials know this is important. There won’t be a time that I’m relaxed… and justifiably so.” She feels that PBS should always be proving why its programming is important and how the money is well-invested.
Besides funding, PBS must also focus its energies on creating its own branding. Fortunately, Kerger doesn’t seem to be too worried about streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon owning the television landscape.
“Not only the resources, but the competition of the Netflixes and the Amazons is significant,” she acknowledged, “But it is also not the full range of services and programs that we provide. Their investments in different content strategies continue to shift. Their investment in documentaries which was very significant two years ago, eased up significantly a year ago, and now is more targeted. It’s very different than the work that we’re doing.”
One of PBS’ focuses is awareness of how its programming is different, especially from Netflix, which is trying to be every network on one service. That could be their downfall though.
“A lot of the people who go to the Netflixes and then get lost in the jukebox effect of just scrolling through lots of stuff,” she said. “There are lots of people who still like curated experiences. We still think carefully about schedules. We look for ways to bring them to their local stations. Netflix is not in every community around this country. Amazon isn’t. But our stations are.
“The more that we can continue to focus on that unique aspect of the fact that we are a media service that lives and breathes on the community level and that there’s stuff there that can’t find on Netflix that’s going to be of great value. That’s part of the answer in the long term.”
That doesn’t mean that PBS is discounting streaming or even putting their content there. Some PBS shows have gone to Netflix, with more going to Amazon recently. But there are other options.
“We have a lot of content on our own digital app, and our stations also offer Passport, which is a benefit for people who are members, which is deep library content,” she said. “We’ll continue to be innovative and experimental as we move forward to see how the environment continues to play out.”
Meanwhile, PBS is still focused on its programming. Masterpiece continues to be a reliable brand, but it’s best known for its British-made dramas such as “Downton Abbey,” “Poldark,” “Prime Suspect,” and “Victoria.” Even the American novel “Little Women” was produced across the pond. In fact, after the end of the Civil War drama “Mercy Street,” the series hasn’t produced an American drama since. For now, filling that absence doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.
“I would say that if a really great [American drama] project came in the door, we certainly would look at it very carefully,” Kerger said. “But right now there is a lot of [other American] drama. We fill the gaps that are not met by other media organizations.”